Temple Lodging: 3 Things that Surprised Me
Staying at a temple is high up on many traveler's Japan bucket list. But what is temple lodging really like? Last weekend, I headed up Mount Koya in search of zen and serenity - or more just to jump on the hype. The experience, though touristy at times, was extremely rewarding and informative. Below I've outlined a few things that surprised me the most about my time in the most sacred mountain of Japan.
1. The number of fellow travelers
When I found out about temple lodging, I had honestly thought that I struck gold. I believed I had found an experience unknown to most travelers that would allow me to truly connect with Buddhism and zen. That... was a little bit naive. After all, the wealth of information I had found about the experience was from the internet. There are over 100 temples on Mount Koya with roughly 50 offering accommodation to travelers and pilgrims.
Going up the mountain was really convenient: two trains straight out of Osaka go right to the foot of Mount Koya; from there, a cable car takes travelers up and down the mountain. Once you arrive at the top, you will see a detailed map for which bus stop corresponds to which temple inn. Hop on- hop off, and you're at your temple. The ease of transportation makes the experience especially accessible to travelers.
In the temple I stayed at, there were over 150 guest rooms, each big enough to sleep up to four people, and five practicing monks. That ratio came as an unexpected surprise to me, as I was unprepared for the huge tourist population. But because of the travelers coming in and out of the area, the inns are all very well run, with hot springs, lounge spaces, coffee bars, and employees who speak english. Though very commercialized at times, the overall experience was still meaningful and highly recommended.
2. Delicious vegan cuisine
Traditional Buddhist cuisine is called shojin ryori, and can be hard to find in the big city. Shojin ryori is made based on the Buddhist belief to cause no harm and produce no waste, so the meals are vegan and every part of the ingredient is somehow incorporated into the meal. On Mount Koya, your accommodation typically includes breakfast and dinner, allowing you to get a taste of shojin ryori. Shojin ryori focuses on the “rule of five”, which means having five different colors and five different tastes present in the meal. I was pleasantly surprised by the creativity in which the ingredients were used. I had to do a lot of guessing to figure out what I was eating! The beautifully plated, delicious and creative meal was one of the best meals I’ve had in Japan!
3. Walking through the cemetery at night
Reading about Mount Koya, I knew that the cemetery leading to Okunoin Temple was one of the most beautiful sights on the mountain. Most people choose to go during the daytime, because the tall trees, dim lights, and thousands of headstones are quite daunting at night. I wanted to see the cemetery at night, but was still too scared to go alone. So I joined an English tour to see what the cemetery was like and to hear about the interesting facts within the cemetery.
This was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. Our tour guide was a practicing monk, who spoke very good English. What surprised me was how hilarious the tour was! Our tour guide gave us fascinating and scary facts about the cemetary in a comical way throughout our tour. The eerie silence was often broken with roaring laughter from our crowd after our guide told a joke. Hearing it all explained added a new layer of understanding and appreciation for the old, sacred mountain. The experience of venturing into such a grand cemetery at night was also worth leaving the comfort of your temple inn for an hour or two.
The overall experience on Mount Koya was filled with little surprises along the way and worth the long commute. Come ready to meet fellow travelers, taste delicious shojin ryori cuisine and have a good laugh with Buddhist monks.